The Bad Habit that’s Holding Your Technique Back

Improve Your Saxophone TechniqueI recently did a survey asking sax players what was the area of their playing that they’d most like to improve. The answer – well, you can probably guess that based on the title of this article.

While technique is a very subjective term which can be used to describe the sum total of our skill level in all areas of playing the instrument (fast fingers, sound production, intonation, etc), what I’m talking about here is the ability to play things fast and clean. 

Avoiding the Obvious

And you know what keeps us from the finger-flashin’ kingdom of Johnny Griffin, Michael Brecker, and Cannonball Adderley? No, it’s not the whole legendary genius thing. You don’t have to be a saxophone god to come to the realization that mentally focusing on your fingers while playing is quite likely to trip them up and add unwanted slop to your playing.

Attention as a Matter of Life or Death

It’s kind of like driving a car down the freeway. If you focus on the fact that you’re moving at 70 miles per hour and then feel yourself flying down the road at the mercy of your hands on the wheel, then you’re likely to lose that sense of oneness with the automobile. And it’s that subconscious feeling of connection to the vehicle that keeps you from wrapping your ride around a light post.

Don’t Think of the Pink Elephant in the Room

Well, same thing goes with the fingers. Many of us are taught to play with our fingers close to the keys. And of course, keeping those fingers as close to the horn as possible is certainly a good habit to get into. But if you’re running through your scales with your mind focused on the feeling of the keys under your fingers as you try to keep them stuck to the pearls, you’re probably going to trip yourself up.

Perhaps it’s because focusing on the fingers introduces a bunch of tension in the hands. Or maybe it’s because you’re creating an additional and unnecessary layer of thinking between the time that the brain tells you to play the note and the time that the note actually comes out. Truth is, I’d be lying if I said I know for sure.

The Irony of Good Technique

While playing high-speed passages, I’ve found that my technique seems to shoot upwards if I focus on something other than my fingers. Keeping the brain away from the digits invariably results in the notes coming out more evenly and my playing feeling that much more effortless.

Anything Else

To give some examples of good places for me to send my brain other than the fingers:

  • Imagine playing whatever you’re playing center stage to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Or maybe you’re serenading the love of your life from under a tree beneath his or her bedroom (without being interrupted by neighbors telling you to put the horn somewhere rather uncomfortable). Move around expressively a bit and incorporate varying dynamics if that helps you. If you’re playing an Ab major scale, use make it the most beautiful Ab major scale that the world has ever heard. The point is, focus on creating something beautiful and you’ll find your fingers surprising you with new found nimbleness.
  • Pay close attention to your tone quality. Are you getting the sound you really want to have? Think about the “color” of your tone. If you want to sound bright like Hank Crawford, listen for and create brightness in your sound. No matter who or what you want to sound like, put your sound at the forefront of your brain while zipping through those tricky passages, and your fingers will not fail you.
  • Focus on relaxation. See how at ease you can be while playing. Become aware of tension in your body – especially in the shoulders, the arms, and the hands, since it’s the muscles in those parts of the body that can really cause you to clench up and restrict your fingers to a clumsy turtle’s pace.
  • Focus on the clanking of the keys as they come down on the toneholes. I know that this one is going to be controversial, but what can I say – it’s really helped me. Granted, even if you play 100% cleanly, the sound of the keys coming down might not happen in perfect unison with movement of the fingers. But listening to the clinks and clanks with the expectation that I’ll be hearing those clanks in perfect rhythm really does something to clean my playing up. Now this does seem awfully close to focusing on the fingers, but it’s really listening to the saxophone as a percussion instrument. This is also something that you can focus on while practicing silently, like when you’re staying in a hotel or somewhere where loud and cutting sounds are not appreciated.

So those are just a few suggestions. Give ’em a try, and if you have any thoughts on keeping the mind of the fingers so that the fingers may run free, I’d love to hear ’em!

Photo by Bengt Nyman